One of the most common complaints I hear from my clients is “my dog is terrible walking on a leash!” This is a BIG problem. It often makes walking your dog such a miserable experience that eventually the dog doesn’t get walked at all. This is hugely detrimental to the dog, both physically and behaviorally, not to mention what it does to the dog-human relationship. Our dogs need to go outside everyday. Exercise requirements vary from dog to dog but walking is not only for exercise; it is also for mental stimulation and enrichment – your dog needs to sniff, see people, places and things in order to be happy! They also need off-leash time but more about that here: Variety is the Spice of Life.
The ultimate goal for leash training to me is that you do not NEED a leash (or a handle) to hold on to your dog. My first goal for walks is to keep the leash slack (loose).
STEP 1: FOUNDATION SKILLS
BUILDING ENGAGEMENT WITH YOUR DOG WITH FOCUS CUES, A “RESET BUTTON” AND “FIND IT” :
Getting your dog’s attention and having a connection with your dog are prerequisites for his response to any cues you give him. Building engagement with your dog so that you are walking together is the key. It’s not your walk or his walk it is OUR walk. The first thing I want to do is reward my dog for any engagement with me; when he looks at me or orients towards me. Start your leash walking with the ATTENTION GAME and FOCUS CUES – inside, before you even go out the door! Once you have your dog’s attention teach him an “reset button” behavior….
RIGHT HERE” or “HEEL” – This is what i call my “RESET BUTTON” where I can get my dog back to my side when needed. I’m really not interested in my dog walking perfectly beside me for an entire walk (I find that perfectly boring for my dog actually) but sometimes I do need him to come back close to me so I want to teach a start position to reset him when needed. Pick the side you are most comfortable with for this cue. It is useful for a dog to walk on either side but for this specific start position, pick one side. You may lure him into this position or simply wait until he hits that position at your side and mark (click or “yes”) and treat the start position.
Playing the game of FIND IT (scatter feed) on walks is also a good way to direct the way your dog moves too. It’s really easy to play – just say “FIND IT” and drop food on ground. You can toss treats in the directions you want your dog to move (towards your foot, away from an oncoming person/dog/bike/cat). This game should be played in lots of different environments (your kitchen, yard etc.) , not just when out on a walk so when your dog hears “Find It” his nose goes to the ground searching for goodies.
“LOOK” is having your dog make eye contact with you any time you ask him to. Now, I actually prefer NOT to have to cue my dog to look at me and instead be sure to reward him when he does the behavior on his own. But, if you need a little help getting your dog there, you can teach eye contact on a cue.
- Lure your dog’s eye up to you by using an attention (or “kissy”) sound or if needed, show your dog the treat in your hand and bring the treat up to your nose. Your dog will most likely follow the treat up to your face. Use your clicker or verbal reward marker “yes!” the instant his eyes meet yours. He will probably glance briefly from your eyes to the treat so timing is key; make sure only to reward him with the treat when he is looking in your eyes. Repeat this several times.
- Next, with a treat in your otherhand, bring finger up to your nose. When your dog looks in your eyes mark (click or “yes!”) then give the treat with the opposite hand. Practice steps 1 and 2 several times.
- Wait a few moments and see if your dog will spontaneously look to your face. If he does, mark (click or “yes!”) and treat. If he doesn’t look at you try to make a “kissy” sound to get his attention then mark and treat if he looks at you. If he still doesn’t look at you after making a sound go back to steps 1 and 2.
- Once your dog is consistently looking at you begin to extend the time he has to hold his eye contact and get a treat.
- Once your dog is holding eye contact for about 5 seconds start adding distraction by extending your hand with the treat out to the side and ask him to “look”. Be ready to prompt with “kissy” sounds if necessary and to mark and treat the second he looks at you.
- Once he has mastered this and can hold eye contact for 10 seconds with minimal distractions inside, take him to an area with slightly more distraction and begin from step 1. Do not expect him to hold eye contact for 10 seconds at first. Work up to it just as you did inside without distraction.
“TOUCH” teaches your dog to touch your hand (or leg) with his nose. It can be used to get your dog’s attention back to you when walking on leash, especially if your dog is reactive in any way (barking, lunging at passing dogs, people etc.).
To teach your dog to target your hand:
- Start with your clicker and treats in the same hand.
- Stick your opposite hand in your treat bag and get it nice and smelly J
- Quickly put your “smelly hand” in front (or slightly to the side) of your dog’s nose.
- When he reaches his nose to your hand to sniff (or lick) and touches it briefly click at the exact time he touches your hand and give him a treat.
- Repeat putting your hand a few inches from his nose and when he makes contact, click and treat.
- Gradually move your hand further away, to a different side or height and again, when he makes contact click and treat.
- If he stops and just stares at your hand bring your hand in or behind your back and then bring it quickly out again.
- Once he is doing this regularly you can then add the word “touch” right beforeyou bring your hand down and when he touches, click and treat.
STEP 2: General Leash Rules
- Bring high value treats with you every time you go out for a walk. You may need them to get you dog’s attention and/or for desensitizing him to unfamiliar or “scary” stimuli.
- Equipment matters and there are a plethora of great products on the market now. It is best to walk a dog on a harness or head collar and keep any pressure off of his neck. Tension around a dog’s neck is problematic both physically and behaviorally. A neck collar is for tags only!
- Keep your training leash walks short at the beginning and don’t expect to get very far very fast.
- You may need to think of these sessions in terms of time not distance. It would be better to take a longer time to travel a shorter distance than having your dog pull the entire walk to “get in the miles.” The mental stimulation of “working” with you will tire out your dog too.
- Your dog’s walk is as much (maybe more so!) about his nose than it is about his legs and lungs. Socializing and experiencing the world around him (sights, sounds and smells) are important too. Make time for this as well as structured time to practice leash manners.
- You may need your dog a bit closer to get his attention and have him follow your “treat magnet” at first but once he is walking with a slack leash (and there are not a lot of other people/dogs near), extend the length to give him more space to explore and sniff. I like an 8′-15′ leash for most walks and a long line (20′-40′) for sniffaris! You may be surprised to find that when you actually give your dog more leash length (and don’t try to hold him in a tight heel), you will get better engagement from him. If he feel you on the end of the leash all the time he doesn’t need to check in.
- A perfect “heel” is an incredibly boring way for a dog to walk! It is certainly a good position to start in and a good position for tight spaces but your dog should be able to sniff and explore on the walk. It doesn’t matter if your dog is in front, side or behind you as long as the leash is slack at all times. Think of your “Right Here” or “Heel” cue as a reset button.
- You must be watching your dog and giving him your full attention when working on leash manners; you cannot talk on a cell phone and train your dog at the same time!
- A great way to practice leash walking is off leash. Working in a secure area, try dropping the leash and see if you can keep your dog within 2-3 feet of your body. Speeding up, slowing down and adding random “sits” is fun too. This way you can not rely on the leash as a “handle.”
- Do not pull your dog in towards you. If your dog feels tension and you pulling him back to you, he does not need to pay attention to you – you will just pull him to you when you need him. You want your dog to stay engaged with you and check in on his own periodically. I do not like flex-leashes for this reason – your dog feels constant tension on a flex-leash and has no reason to check in or pay attention to you AND he is getting rewarded by getting to that great new smell when he pulls. Smells are high value rewards on a walk!
- Don’t forget to reward (give treat!) or praise (“gooooood!”) when he is walking nicely. Remember, the more times a dog is reinforced for a behavior, the more times that behavior will reoccur.
STEP 3: Putting it all together (steps to stop pulling on the leash):
- Teach your dog to follow a “TREAT MAGNET.” Hold treats with your hand in a fist on the same side as your dog (nose height if possible) and allow him to follow your fist around. Your fist in front of his nose is the cue to have him follow it around. No verbal cue needed. See a video demo of the Treat Magnet here.
- Make sure your leash is long enough to give him some space (6 -8 feet is nice) and if he is getting near the end of the leash (BEFORE IT GETS TAUT) get your dogs attention back to you…
- If needed, GET YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION by using “look”, “touch,” “tsst, tsst”, call his name, slap your thigh, use your RIGHT HERE/HEEL cue..
- PRAISE him for paying attention. If using a clicker, click and treat the moment he looks back to you. If you are not clicking be sure to let him know verbally that him looking back to you is exactly what you like and tell him so with “good!”
- LET’S GO!– If you choose, use a proceed cue like “let’s go” to let you dog know he can start moving again.
- If your dog is a big sniffer, put GO SNIFF on a cue. As your dog is heading to the sniff spot say “go sniff.” Then, to stop the sniffing, you can use your release cue “OK” and then “LET’S GO” to start walking again.
- Practice walking at different SPEEDS.
Hang in there and be patient! And lastly… avoid having your dog greet others when on-leash.